Over the last few years an in-house debate about the gospel has intensified in the Evangelical world.
Squaring off like prize fighters, in one corner you have an articulation of the gospel purely in terms of conversion, repentance, and forgiveness of sins. In the other corner is a gospel framed more as joining a movement, engaging in social justice, or following in the way of Jesus. A cottage-industry of publishing has developed around the word “gospel” in recent years.
More anecdotally, last Easter I noticed how many of the “this is what Easter Sunday means” status updates on Facebook included a of critique of the other corner, depending on which view the person posting held.
If I’m starting to sound cynical; I’m not. If anything, I’m more convinced that what I believe and teach about the gospel is crucial in ministry. On top of that, conversations and observations over the years have convinced me that there is still a lot of misunderstanding out there. Many people in the church still conceive of Christianity as an essentially moralistic religion… be good and God will let you into heaven.
I do believe there is truth in the critique that some have made the gospel too narrow, as if personal salvation is all that it entails. But I’m deeply hesitant about overcorrecting and turning the gospel into something you do. I’m with Tim Keller in his Centre Church, when he argues that we need to clearly differentiate the gospel from the implications of the gospel.
So, having said that I believe the gospel is vital, perhaps I should talk about how I’d communicate it.
In the Roman Empire, the deeds of the Emperor would often be announced far and wide. The Greek word for this was euangelion. Our translation would be “good news” or “gospel”. This kind of announcement was about a person (Caesar) and what he had done (defeat a rival army, for example).
The writers of the New Testament used the word euangelion in relation to Jesus and the cross. So, the gospel is fundamentally an announcement about something that has been accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth. To preach the gospel is to tell the good news of something Jesus has done in history.
This is where I would want to gently push back against framing the gospel as something we do. Because, while accepting the gospel inevitably bears fruit – a life of growing generosity, justice, and obedience – those are implications of the gospel. But those things are always fuelled and funded by the grace of Christ revealed in the gospel.
So, back to the announcement. If the euangelion was about a person, who was this person? His followers, including hundreds of post-resurrection witnesses who were willing to face death for it, believed he was the divine Son of God in the flesh.
And what did he do that was worth announcing?
Well, this is where it gets interesting. It appears to have been something so universe-changing that no one metaphor could sum it up. So, the New Testament authors talked about it in different ways. Here are some of them…
Have you ever felt unloved, alone, an outsider? Through Christ’s death and resurrection, God has adopted you as his child. You are part of his family.
Have you ever felt like you couldn’t escape your propensity to stuff things up, to say and do the thing you didn’t want to say or do, to make a mess of things? Christ’s death says that that feeling points to a deeper truth. We humans are mired in this propensity to stuff things up. The bible calls this sin. But Jesus has taken that sin on himself at the cross. Through Jesus, God has justified you in his sight, and in Christ you can be washed clean.
Have you ever felt let down, betrayed, like no one is trustworthy? Here’s some good news… there is one who you can trust. In Christ, God kept his word. He fulfilled his covenant promises to the people he called his own, Israel.
Have you ever felt hopeless? That war, poverty, racism, and every other evil are simply overwhelming? That nothing is going to matter, and in a few billion years it will all burn up in the death of the sun, anyway? Here’s something interesting: the early Christians believed something audacious. They believed that when God raised Jesus from death, Christ was being proclaimed Lord over everything. The entire universe, even. That Jesus has triumphed over evil. He has won the ultimate victory. That he will return one day, that the world will be restored and made right, and that the lives we live for him will matter.
This is good news.
The writers of the bible said that when we believe this good news by faith, something changes in us. There is a change of status. They described it in different ways… it’s like, they said, we go from being dead to being alive. It’s like we go from being enemies of God to being his friends. It’s like we go from being strangers and foreigners, to being citizens in God’s country.
This announcement about what Jesus has accomplished for us – and for the whole universe – is at the heart of the Christian faith. And when you get it, it can’t help but lead to transformation. That’s the beauty of it. But it’s not something you do… and really, doesn’t that make you glad?
Christ has done this for us. It is good news.